The beginning of every year is a time of hope. Hope looks forward, to the future and to our true home in heaven, living in the presence of Christ, Who never changes and Who never fails us. These days we seem divided and adrift as a country. But we needn’t be if we live in hope. And, if we chose to see it, hope springs up all around us. The empty tomb is lived out in the simple choices that each one of us makes every day. Seeing these choices for what they reveal about our hearts is one of the joys of the Christian life.

We see hope when a teacher takes the time to comfort a crying child whose home life is hunger, loneliness, and harsh words. We see hope when a young man in prison receives a letter filled with kind words and encouragement, tucked inside a new Bible. We see hope when a young mother, despite pressure from her boyfriend, decides to keep her unborn child. We see hope when a man who has been away from the Church for decades is welcomed and consoled in the confessional by a kind and patient priest. Oh yes. Hope is surely here, if we see it.

“Hope is the life of the soul,” writes Dr. Peter Kreeft. Hope isn’t wishful thinking, or a merely optimistic outlook on life. Real hope, Christian hope, is the solid conviction that God has a plan for my life. Hope is knowing that He is in charge of everything and that He will see me through every trial—even the trial of my death. Hope is the risen Christ, the empty tomb, and life everlasting. Hope gives us strength to trust in God and not in ourselves. “Our God is thus a God of promises. And He keeps every one to the letter,” says Dr. Kreeft. We see that hope when an elderly couple, homebound and frail, share a meal and hospitality with the family that lives next door. We see hope when a businessman spends his Saturdays working with homeless men, helping them to fill out job applications and develop interview skills. We see hope when a parish welcomes two refugee families and provides them with housing and settlement support. We see hope when a husband and wife choose to adopt a child.

Hope connects us with one another and helps us to realize that we are all on this earthly journey together. “Hope builds bridges between faith and love, between conservatives and liberals, between present and future, between earth and heaven,” writes Dr. Kreeft. Hope asks of us to care for the needy among us, to reach out beyond our prejudices and to see the face of Christ in our neighbor. Hope gives us the courage to leave our fears in God’s hands. Hope calls us forth to love. We see hope when a teenaged girl is rescued from sex-trafficking by a group of dedicated nuns. We see hope when a small boy witnesses his mother love and care for his dying father in their home, day after day, for months on end. We see hope when a brother and a sister reconcile with one another after years of resentment over a now-forgotten slight. We see hope in the life of a woman battling breast cancer, who faces each day with courage and joy, inspiring those around her to do the same.  

We show hope to others when we live a life of gratitude, no matter our circumstances. Because we know that our God is always in charge, caring for us and drawing us to Himself. We know that today and tomorrow and all eternity are in His loving grasp. Hope is not an abstraction or a concept. Hope isn’t an intellectual exercise or a naive belief in some make-believe Candyland of our own design. Hope is as real as the nails in His sacred hands, as solid as the rock rolled away from His grave, as everlasting as God Himself. Hope isn’t some “thing”—as Pope Francis has said: “You have asked me for a word of hope–what I have to offer you has a name–Jesus Christ.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find til after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to the other country and to help others do the same.” —-C.S.Lewis

The King Is Coming

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  But there are so many problems that need our attention.  Our country seems more divided than ever.  Race relations are tense and seem to be growing worse. There’s an ongoing wave of sexual harassment in politics, media, and entertainment with no end in sight.  Our government doesn’t seem to be able to get anything done these days.  Our military men and women are suicidal at an alarming rate, our police officers are targets of violence. Terrorists of all kinds seek out innocent victims in schools, churches, shopping malls, and on our public streets.  So many problems wherever you look.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  There would be so many more of us here to greet Him, but we’ve allowed abortion to claim more than 60 million lives in America since 1973.  Our culture sees the gift of life as an inconvenience that can be “fixed” by visiting a clinic for a “procedure.”  Yet the wounds of this loss plague families for a lifetime.  Abortion deadens our hearts to all kinds of suffering and abuse.  When we don’t protect the most innocent and helpless among us, we shouldn’t be surprised by all the other abuse and violence in our country.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  The Church that He left us for us is in need of repair. Fewer people fill the pews and many of our young people no longer believe in faith of any kind.  There are thousands of denominations with new ones emerging and older ones dying off.  Scandals plague His holy places and disillusion the faithful. Confusion and contradiction in teaching the Gospel sows more discontent and discouragement.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  So many of us are imprisoned—some in jails, while many more are locked up by addictions.  Drugs and alcohol put millions behind bars and are the sentences served by their families, too.  How many children are punished by their parent’s addictions and are forced to live in poverty and uncertainty while one or both of their parents are absent?  Communities are plagued with the crime that drugs bring with them.  Our resources go to increasing our debt rather than addressing the causes of family breakdown.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  The elderly among us are often lonely and isolated as families move around our country.  They can struggle financially, but even more, they can struggle with feelings of being forgotten.  Many live in nursing homes and receive few visitors.  With loneliness comes depression and worsening physical health.  It’s no wonder that suicide is a growing problem among elderly people who have found loneliness too hard to bear.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  How we speak with one another reveals a lot.  It shows our respect (or disrespect) for other people.  It reveals our prejudices.  It displays our wisdom (or ignorance).  It uncovers our ability to discuss issues and opinions that differ from our own.  Unfortunately these days, many of us are quick to disrespect others, to yell at them, or even to become violent, just because of someone else’s speech.  We seem to have lost the ability to listen, to question, and to dialogue with others. This leaves us without a way to come together for understanding and compromise.  We’re just making noise, and becoming impoverished as a country.

The King is coming.  We need to be ready for Him.  He came to us first as a helpless baby, born in poverty, to a young couple just beginning their lives together.  He’ll come again as the King of Kings, at the end of time. Yet He also comes to us each day, into hearts who embrace Him and seek Him out.  Advent is a time of anticipating His return, and remembering His birth.  It’s also a time in which each one of us is called to examine our lives and to ask the King what we can do to make the world ready for Him.  What can I do to prepare a way for Him?  How can I be a light in the darkness?  How can I be ready for the King?

“When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace, and harmony.”

                       —–Pope Pius XI


Why Advent Matters

During this season of Advent, we’re called to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, both at Christmas and at the end of time. We should examine our lives and ask ourselves—“Am I ready for Him?” Many of us will go to confession and many parishes will offer Advent penance services to make this more convenient for us at such a busy time of year. Advent is always a hopeful season because our hope is in Christ, Who never disappoints. We wait and we watch for Him and we remember and celebrate the great gift of His Incarnation. God chose to leave His heavenly throne to be born as one of us, to live and to live, to work and to suffer as one of us. He came to save us from our sins and to die in our place so that we can know heaven for all eternity.

This is all true, of course.  But until you allow Christ to transform these facts into a deep and true relationship with Him your life is incomplete and unredeemed.  You may have a religion, but not a living faith.  There’s a time in all our lives when we have to know in our hearts:  Christ died for ME.  No theory or historical review will work.  Christ suffered and died on the cross for me.  For my sins.  And no sinner deserved that less than me.  You hear Him say to you:  “I love you so much t I want nothing more than to suffer and die for you, to set you free, to give you full life.”  I think our Evangelical brothers and sisters get this right, and we can learn from them.  Before Jesus, there was an abyss between man and God, larger, wider, darker and deeper than the depths of the sea.  No amount of our own efforts could span it.  No matter how many burnt offering we sacrificed, it remained.  Steadfast.  Immense.  Heartbreaking.  We longed for the Light, yet we stumbled on in the darkness of our sins.  Only a baby born in a Palestinian stable could reach from heaven and into our hearts.

God could have saved us in another way.  It didn’t have to involve the cruel death of His only Son.  But God always heals us personally, never at a distance, and never without involving us in the healing.  Think of all the miraculous healings that Jesus accomplished.  All the times He spoke with the afflicted person, touched them, comforted them and asked them what they wanted Him to do for them.  It’s just the same with you and with me.  He wants to know us, to know who we are and we need.  Of course, He already knows, but His heart’s desire is to be in a relationship with us.  He’s asking you, “What do you want Me to do for you?”  We have to play an active part in building the Kingdom of God, first in our hearts and lives, and also in the world.

Life is short.  Eternity isn’t.  We only get one chance to get it right.  You can’t go through life as a spectator of your own redemption.  You have to be an active player and the context of our redemptive work in in His Church.  He never meant for us to work out this life (or the next one) on our own.  He gave us a Church and through this Church, His holy Scripture (Matthew 16:18).  The story of Scripture is God’s unfolding love for us.  Christmas is the promise of that love made known to us in the flesh.  Jesus loved you as He lay in Bethlehem’s manger, surrounded by the warmth and smell of the animals.  He loved you as He taught in His Father’s house, as Mary and Joseph searched for Him.  He loved you for thirty years as He worked with Joseph in Nazareth and grew to manhood in Mary’s holy and loving home.  He loved you when the devil tempted Him in the desert, and when His cousin John baptized Him in the river.  As He called each of His disciples to follow Him, He called you to do the same.  Every time He healed a leper, forgave a sinner, or made a blind man see, He was healing and forgiving you, too.  That night in the Garden, while you and the others were sleeping, He felt the weight of your sins crushing Him, and He loved you more.  When they led Him away in the chains of your slavery to sin, He was thinking of you and loving you.  Every blow of the whip on His scourged back cried out, “Love! Love!,” as He bore the pain that you and I deserved.  Jesus created the shrub that grew the thorns that tore His scalp when the soldiers (that He created and loved and died for) crowned Him.  He caused the seed to grow into the tree that made the wood of His Cross.  He created the ore that made the iron for the nails and the spear that pierced His side.  As He hung there, pouring out His life for you and me, He held those nails and that wood in existence as they pierced His Body and drained away His human life.  His eternal joy was in giving Himself away for you, so that you could be saved.

Salvation isn’t a theory or a study course.  Salvation is a Person—Jesus, the Christ.  During this season of Advent, consider if your relationship with Him is the center of your life.  If it isn’t, this is the time to make it so.  Today is the day to make yourself ready for His coming.  There’s a beautiful message in every Mass where we affirm that we are waiting for God “in joyful hope.”  That’s what Advent is:  a time of joyful hope.  Don’t waste this opportunity to say “yes” to the love of Christ.  Not a theory.  Not an idea—but the love of the Person Who made you and Who died for your sins, in your place.  Make no mistake:  it’s personal. 

“What good does it do me if Christ was born in Bethlehem once if He is not born again in my heart through faith?”

—-Origen (184 – 253 A.D.)

The Cross at Bethlehem

We love the manger scene at Christmas, don’t we?  Ever since St. Francis of Assisi made the first one in 1223, Christians of all sorts have loved seeing the tender scene of the stable at Bethlehem.  Tiny Nativity sets on our coffee tables.  Carved wooden family heirlooms under our Christmas trees.  Large realistic statuary in front of the altar of our church.  We love the sight of all the animals gathered into the stable around the manger.  We see the shepherds there, running in from their flocks to worship the newborn baby.  The angels who proclaimed His birth hover nearby, trumpets in hand, trailing banners that read, “Gloria In Excelsis Deo.” The sweet old man leaning on his staff must be St. Joseph.  A misreading of Scripture sometimes places the three wise men in the Nativity scene too, though it was probably at least a couple of years later that they made their appearance.  Every manger scene features the Blessed Virgin Mary looking down lovingly at her newborn son.  Even the most spartan Christian denominations trot out a Nativity scene at Christmas.  No one could object to these warm and fuzzy images.  And then, there’s the baby—tiny and perfect and cooing up at His mother and foster father.  Just looking at Him gives us a warm glow, a feeling that all is right with the world once more.  We look at this idyllic scene and smile.

And yet to view His birth as only a kind of Disney cartoon filled with little lambs and singing cherubs is at least a misunderstanding and maybe even a heresy.  This is not just the miracle of another birth to another poor couple in desperate circumstances.  This is the Creator God Whose birth is cleaving creation in two.  By being born as a baby, He is dividing time itself.  We measure time as either before or after the Incarnation.  This cooing infant has all the power and knowledge of the great “I AM” in Him from the moment of His conception.  Fully human and fully divine, this newborn is the Word made flesh.  Look closely at Him and you’ll see much more than just a babe in swaddling clothes.

Nestled in His mother’s lap in the stable, does He also imagine the last time she’ll hold Him, as He is taken down from the Cross? Looking around Him there in the manger, does He notice the donkey patiently chewing some hay nearby and does he see that other one that He’ll ride into Jerusalem for that last Passover? Does His borrowed stable remind Him of the borrowed tomb yet-to-be? Does He wonder why so many want to see Him in the crib, but so few will want to walk with Him to Golgotha? Crowds come to pray at His birth, but He knows that in Gethsemane, He’ll pray alone. The stable filled with love and homage will one day be a lonely hill, rocky and barren and full of suffering. Does the baby know this? Surely. And yet He chooses to come to us anyway. He comes to be one of us so that we can know how to be more like Him. He comes because He knows we have nowhere else to go and no one else who can save us. He comes because it is His Father’s will and He and the Father are One. He comes out of love because He IS Love. The baby in the manger is already sacrificing Himself for you and for me. The star shining so brightly overhead throws a shadow on His face, the shadow of a Cross. We can never truly know the joy of that Bethlehem night unless we also embrace with Him that long afternoon on Good Friday. Our beloved manger scenes at Christmas hold the promise of Easter morning within them, if we only choose to make the journey with our Savior. It begins here in Bethlehem as we kneel by the baby. Mary’s little lamb is already the Lamb of God “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8).